A Fresh Batch of True Crimes (And Adjacents) That Are Ripe for Adaptation
The last couple days have been jam-packed with potential properties
In a time of weird news, some headlines from recent days still stood out. On the plus side, folks working on ripped-from-the-headlines style shows have their jobs already done for them. On the down side, I have forgotten what satire is. Here are five true crime/true crime adjacent items I have read within the past few days that are in desperate need of adaptation by one or more genre professionals. I’m sure there will be more by the time I am done writing this, so please do make your additions in the comments. — EB
What happened: Bill Gates went on PBS Newshour last week to talk about vaccine equity and his charitable foundation, but the great Judy Woodruff refused to let Gates off the hook when it came to his longstanding relationship with Jeffrey Epstein even after the financier became a known and registered sex offender. Even taking into account Gates’s well-known awkwardness, it’s a rough one.
Here’s the text version, but you really should watch the video (maybe through your fingers):
Woodruff: It was reported at that time that you had a number of meetings with Jeffrey Epstein, who, when you met him 10 years ago, he was convicted of soliciting prostitution from minors. What did you know about him when you were meeting with him, as you have said yourself, in the hopes of raising money?
Gates: You know, I had dinners with him. I regret doing that. He had relationships with people he said would give to global health, which is an interest I have. Not nearly enough philanthropy goes in that direction. Those meetings were a mistake. They didn't result in what he purported. And I cut them off. That goes back a long time ago now. There's — so there's nothing new on that.
Woodruff: It was reported that you continued to meet with him over several years, and that — in other words, a number of meetings. What did you do when you found out about his background?
Gates: Well, I have said I regretted having those dinners. And there's nothing, absolutely nothing new on that.
Woodruff: Is there a lesson for you, for anyone else looking at this?
Gates: Well, he's dead. So, in general, you always have to be careful.
Proposed adaptation: Anthony Michael Hall, who played Gates in 1999’s Pirates of Silicon Valley, returns to the role in Well, He’s Dead, a two-hour dramatic adaptation of the tumult at the Gates Foundation/Microsoft when folks started asking questions about the tech scion’s relationship with the disgraced financier at the same time that Bill and Melinda Gates’ marriage publicly collapsed. Cameo from Noah Wyle as the ghost of Steve Jobs, who, Jacob Marley-like, taunts a sleepless Gates as he tosses and turns over his crumbling legacy.
What happened: Y’all, you must read New York Times media columnist Ben Smith’s latest, headlined “Goldman Sachs, Ozy Media and a $40 Million Conference Call Gone Wrong.” The piece will give you full-on Fyre Fest/Theranos vibes…but would Billy McFarland or Elizabeth Holmes have had a staffer put on a funny voice to pretend be YouTube exec Alex Piper during a conference call with potential investors?
That’s what dubiously popular website Ozy did, Smith claims, later blaming the strange moment of impersonation on a “mental health crisis” suffered by the site’s COO. But actively attempting to deceive investors is illegal, and the FBI is allegedly investigating the site over the alleged trickery. The story has more dubious moves from the site’s founders, including suggestions that the website has lied significantly about its traffic and issues with how the publication promotes one of its web series as an Amazon show when it’s technically not. Remember, there’s still big money in online publishing:
Mr. Watson raised the money to start Ozy from a list of blue-chip friends. Laurene Powell Jobs, who had co-founded a college prep nonprofit with Mr. Watson in 1997, invested and joined the Ozy board. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ron Conway also invested, as did David Drummond, who was then Google’s chief legal officer.
In 2014, Axel Springer, the Berlin publishing giant, invested an undisclosed amount. In 2019, Ozy also raised $35 million from a group led by Mr. Lasry, a boon that included money from the media-focused investment bank LionTree and the radio and podcast company iHeart Media. The Ford Foundation, seeking to support a minority-led company, also backed it with grants, its president, Darren Walker, said. The data service PitchBook reports that Ozy had raised more than $83 million by April 2020 and valued itself at $159 million.
Proposed adaptation: Documentarian Chris Smith (Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, aka The Netflix One) sits down with big Ozy investors including Jobs, former top editors Jonathan Dahl and Fay Schlesinger, co-founders Carlos Watson and Samir Rao (the impressionist), and Piper himself for Ozy: The Day The House Dropped. Starting with BuzzFeed’s 2017 reporting that the site bought low-quality traffic to boost ad revenue, Smith and team dismantle Ozy’s claims one by one via interviews and expert commentary from folks like Ben Smith and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, an early Ozy staffer who likened the site to a Potemkin village (in other words, a facade used to suggest that a disaster zone is actually a fine and lovely place to live).
What happened: As Sarah noted earlier this month, true-crime podcaster Sarah Treleaven penned a fascinating story for this month’s Elle called “A Sick Scam,” a longread about Sarah A. Delashmit, who — per a press release from the DoJ — spent “years defrauding nonprofit organizations by falsely posing as person with muscular dystrophy and a breast cancer survivor to receive money, donated items, and other benefits.”
The story is way more complicated than the DoJ release, of course: there are imaginary births and miscarriages, an appearance on Dr. Phil, and even a catfishing that ends in a (made-up) death. You must read it, here’s a snip:
In October 2012, while working as a staff nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City, Delashmit announced she was pregnant with twins. But in June of 2013, she relayed terrible news: She had delivered the twins prematurely and lost both.
In order to further the lie, Delashmit shoved pillows under her work uniform and carried around ultrasound pictures, almost certainly of someone else’s pregnancy. When a workplace investigation—it’s unclear what prompted it—was launched into her conduct, Delashmit told the investigator this was at least the second time she’d falsely presented herself as pregnant. She lost her license to practice in Oklahoma in May of 2014, and subsequently in additional states.
Proposed adaptation: Dirty John: A Sick Scam is the third season of the Lifetime-y true crime series, casting Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Delashmit. Treleaven provides more than enough information to fill an eight-episode arc on the series, which will bounce around in time from Delashmit’s childhood (when we all tell whoppers!) to the present day, in an effort to unpack her motives and determine if she is — as the claimed to Phil McGraw on his eponymous TV series — addicted to lying, or if there’s more at play.
What happened: While attempting to settle a family argument about a Canadian fort visited when I was a kid, I stumbled on this Canada.com article headlined “Prison hotels set bar high for ‘dark tourism.’” Subsequent searches (see the image above) suggest that I’m late to this trend: Thrillist was on the case in 2014 with the headline “Slammers with style: 7 former prisons that are now hotels,” and listicles of jails that are now lodgings abound. How did I miss this?
Another former lock-up cashing in on its Alcatraz-like allure is Sweden’s Langholmen Hotel, which housed some of the country’s most notorious felons during its time as a prison from 1724 until 1975. Located on a private island in the capital, Stockholm, it was also the site of Sweden’s last execution.
“It wasn’t a pleasant place to be back then,” marketing director Ola Nymen told The National newspaper of the hotel, which has retained the jail’s barred windows and metal doors. “These days it’s somewhere rather captivating for people to escape their troubles.”
Guests can choose from single, double and family rooms, while the “romantic” cell tempts jailbird-turned-lovebirds with a three-course dinner accompanied by chocolates and fruit.
Proposed adaptation: Joe Berlinger (The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, problematic emails) directs Hoosegow To Hotel, a streaming service TBD series that tackles the thorny issue of turning the carceral system into a hee-hee ha-ha Instagrammable moment. Hosts Felicity Huffman (Desperate Housewives, prisoner 77806-112 at Dublin, California’s Federal Correctional Institution) and Ear Hustle podcast founder Earlonne Woods (who spent 27 years in San Quentin) fix their steely gazes on the marketing and hospitality heads at spots like Oxford Castle Prison, where the open space once used for hangings is now an office center.
Watch the hotel staffers squirm as Huffman’s eyes narrow and she asks them if they think prison is funny (ruh-roh!), while Woods asks guests of the lodgings how they feel about relevant issues like prison privatization, cash bail, defunding the police, and the failed U.S. war on drugs. Meanwhile, Berlinger somehow makes every shot feel squirmy and ominous, suggesting that we might all be happier at a Marriott or Intercontinental, anyway.
Sarah and I promise that we’ll never spend a dime of paid Best Evidence subscriber money on time at a prison hotel. We will, however, use the $5 you spend on our week-daily true-crime analysis and commentary publication on stuff like contributor pay, hosting fees, and the occasional treat for BE management’s vast collection of high-maintenance pets. The human/canine/feline team here thanks you for your consideration.
What happened: A Bay Area-based investigation sheds light on the private autopsy business, a wild-seeming Western network of unlicensed and uncertified forensic pathologists charging grieving families thousands to autopsy their loved ones.
NBC Bay Area dropped this report last week, with a focus on National Autopsy Services. The company is the subject of at least one enraged Change.org petition alleging “theft by deception and tampering with a corpse.” The company’s owner, Shawn Parcells, saw his credentials first questioned in 2014 when he was part of the team performing the autopsy on police shooting victim Michael Brown.
From a CNN report at the time:
Parcells, a Kansas native, says he became interested in death at age 12 when his grandfather passed away.
"I actually started doing autopsies my junior year in high school," he said. "I've been doing this a long time. I love it."
Right after high school, renowned pathologist Michael Baden made a visit to Kansas. Parcells snapped a photo with him.
By college, Parcells said, he was teaching first-year residents how to do autopsies. The campus newspaper, The Kansas State Collegian, wrote an article about him in 1999 headlined "Morbid Curiosity."
He received a bachelor's degree in life sciences from Kansas State in 2003, and he said he was immediately accepted to medical school in the Caribbean, but his wife got pregnant and he wanted her to receive her care in the United States, so he didn't attend.
By 2020, he was banned from performing autopsies and faced fraud charges, as more and more people who’d paid him and his company to determine a cause of death came forward with troubling tales. That ban, however, only covers work in Kansas, so he’s still performing autopsies for clients in states like California.
Proposed adaptation: Dallas Morning News medical reporter Laura Beil (host of podcasts like Dr. Death and Bad Batch) is the beyond-obvious host of Post Mortem Perfidy, a new podcast on the loosely-regulated private autopsy industry. She’ll speak with alleged victims of Parcells and other unqualified dissectors, and will frequently call on legit colorful character Vidal “El Muerto” Herrera, the owner of 1-800-AUTOPSY, as an expert pundit in the case. (I am not making this man up!)
Wednesday on Best Evidence: Only paid subscribers will know! (But if you love to hate Shkreli content, you should sub now.)